Alfred Butler in the Mexican War
By Steven R. Butler
On November 14, 1846, the United States Navy seized Tampico, Mexico's second most important port city on the Gulf of Mexico, yet lacked sufficient men to garrison the town for any length of time. Thus it became the Army's task to take over. On November 26th, from his camp near Monterey, General Taylor wrote to Roger Jones, the Adjutant-General of the Army, in Washington, advising him that:
On the requisition of Commodore Perry, who brought the first intelligence of the occupation to Brazos Santiago, Major General Patterson promptly gave orders for Lieutenant Colonel Belton's battalion (six companies) to proceed to and garrison Tampico, and also took measures to ship thither a sufficient supply of heavy ordnance and provisions. These orders have been fully approved by me, and I have directed a regiment of volunteers to be added to the garrison, the whole to be under the command of a brigadier general, probably Brigadier General Shields, who is here now and will soon report to Major General Patterson.
The volunteer regiment chosen for garrison duty at Tampico was, no doubt to their delight, the Alabama regiment. But, probably unknown to most of them, they very nearly were recalled. In a later communication, dated November 28, Captain Bliss, writing to General Patterson on behalf of General Taylor, took Patterson to task for taking it upon himself to send not only the Alabamians but also a regiment of Illinois infantry and a regiment of Tennessee cavalry. "He now directs," wrote Bliss, "that the movement of these corps toward Tampico...be at once suspended," adding: "The battalion under Colonel Gates, or Lieutenant Colonel Belton, together with one regiment of volunteer infantry, as directed in the instructions by Major McCall, are intended to compose the garrison of that place and may even be reduced if circumstances require." But, continued Bliss, "The Alabama regiment having already started, will not be recalled, although a different arrangement was proposed." By December 8th, General Taylor was able to write: "Tampico is now garrisoned by eight strong companies of artillery and the Alabama regiment of volunteers - say 1,000 effectives."
In contradiction to General Taylor's letter of December 8th, Stephen Nunnalee recalled that the First Alabama's departure from Camargo took place in mid-December. But Nunnalee wrote about his Mexican War experiences some sixty years after the fact, the passage of time no doubt accounting for what appears to be an inaccuracy. Regardless, except for his mis-naming General Robert Patterson "William," there's no reason to doubt his memory of the circumstances of their leaving. As the Alabamians boarded a steamboat bound for the mouth of the Rio Grande, Nunnalee wrote, they made a sincere attempt to make up for their previous display of disrespect:
General Patterson honored us with his presence, and as we were about to go aboard, Captain Moore requested the boys (privately) to give him a decent farewell. The Pet told him to be easy, we would give it to him right. The General in a nice, advisory conservative speech, made us a farewell talk from the upper deck, and as he concluded, the Pet called "Three cheers and a tiger, for Maj. General William Patterson" and they were given with a hearty good will. As the boat shoved off, and headed down stream, our Battalion gave him another decent farewell cheer...
On their way back down the Rio Grande, Nunnalee recalled, "the boys conveyed word to the captain of the boat that we had not tasted chicken since we left home, and it would be a special favor if he could strike a small snag near shore opposite a chicken ranch about dark, and put us ashore to cook supper." About twenty miles above Matamoros, at some unnamed settlement, the captain complied with this request. Although Nunnalee recalled that some men "paid cash for what we got," many simply took the birds from their owners under cover of darkness, or, as the former soldier euphemistically put it: "the owls made a most fearful disturbance among the chickens of the town." But whether purchased or stolen, there was no doubt that night, with "kettle fires...blazing," the hungry soldiers greatly enjoyed their long-awaited repast. Perhaps not coincidentally, the very next day, when they arrived at Matamoros, "an American paper...[printed in Matamoros], had published a fearful onslaught or diatribe upon chicken thieves."
The regiment did not stay in Matamoros but left there the evening of the same day they arrived, recalled Nunnalee. The following night, he wrote, "we slept on the sands of Point Isabel, where we landed the 4th of July previous." This minor inconsistency (he originally said that the regiment arrived in July at nearby Brazos Island) is also probably attributable to the time which passed between the event and Nunnalee's written recollection of it.
After only a few days, from their encampment on the coast, said the former private, the Alabamians departed aboard the steamer Virginia for the short sea voyage to Tampico. Seeing "one of Uncle Sam's lighters sink beneath the waves" the morning before they left must have filled at least some of the soldiers with dread. Regardless, it appears the regiment arrived at Tampico, apparently without incident - although the date of their arrival is in doubt. Again, if General Taylor is to be believed, they were there by the second week of December. But Stephen Nunnalee claimed he and his comrades did not arrive at Tampico until New Year's Day, 1847.
Nevertheless, to the Alabamians, after some three or four months in Camargo, Tampico must surely have seemed like Heaven, at least for a little while. Wrote Nunnalee:
[Tampico] is a very nice old town, situated on the Madaline River, (I think) about six miles from the gulf - with high beautiful mountains jutting up on the south bank, with a beautiful bay stretching up the river to the right. Here we remained till along in the last days of March battling with mumps and musquitoes. It is one of the best fish and duck markets I ever saw. When we arrived, being the advance of the Volunteers, we found everything very cheap. We bought the largest oranges I ever saw for a dime a dozen, and pineapples, fresh & juicy at mere nominal prices. Chickens and beef were very cheap. We lived well until other troops arrived, and then prices advanced all along the line.
Nunnalee's only apparent error in the preceding passage is in regard to the river: Tampico is situated on the Rio Panuco. The Madelin River is located south of Vera Cruz, flowing through a region which in January 1847, the Alabamians had not yet visited.
By January, having been occupied for nearly two months, the city had become somewhat Americanized. In The Story of the Mexican War, historian Robert Selph Henry wrote the following about Tampico, as it was during the early months of 1847:
Regimental bands took turns playing in the plaza...A company of actors were playing nightly at the "American Theatre" to crowded houses which were kept only moderately quiet by the "fear of the bayonet of the guard". There was a weekly newspaper, the Tampico Sentinel, and the usual assortment of eating, drinking, and gambling establishments bearing such appealing names as "The Rough and Ready Restaurant."
Henry has also written that many soldiers, paid regularly while at Tampico, patronized what were known as "walking saloons" - vendors who sold mescal and aguardiente for a "bit" (one-eighth of a dollar) per dram.
Among the regimental bands whose music was enjoyed by the American troops in Tampico was that of the First Alabama. In his postwar reminiscences, entitled The Twelve Months Volunteer, Tennessean private George C. Furber, whose regiment arrived sometime after the Alabamians, wrote that while touring Tampico he heard:
...the music of a full band at the head of a detachment of soldiers, swelling fully out the inspiring strains of Hail Columbia; and the music, so enlivening, drives away all melancholy thoughts - let us stop at the corner of the plaza, and admire the precision of military movement with which they pass along. - They are part of the Alabama Regiment.
By February the regiment's relatively easy life in Tampico was soon to end. Major-General Winfield Scott had been charged by President Polk to head an invasion of central Mexico. Scott's plan was to land his troops at the port city of Vera Cruz and then follow the same route followed three centuries earlier by Cortez into the interior, eventually, if necessary, to occupy Mexico City itself. Throughout the month of February, chartered merchant ships arrived to take the troops at Tampico to Lobos Island, located about 180 miles north of Vera Cruz. There, Scott gathered his men in readiness for the invasion.
After several delays, the troops eventually got underway on March 8, 1847 - another date about which Stephen Nunnalee erred, writing in his reminiscences that the invasion had taken place "about the first of April." Yet his memories of the landing at Vera Cruz are not only vivid enough to be credible but can also be corroborated by other sources:
...we boarded ship, and the next A.M. Gen. Scott came along side in the Battle Ship, Massachusetts, I think, and asked how many troops there were aboard. Being answered he gave orders what position our vessel should take in the line, bearing down upon Castle de Ulloa and the doomed city. The Vixen in the - evening - I think it was, bore down, near shore, and drew the fire from the castle and town. Then our troops began to land in large surf boats each holding 100 or 200 men. Gen. Worth's Division was the first to land, then other divisions in order. We landed just as the sun was setting behind the snow capped peaks of the distant Orizaba, the top shining like a sheet of silver.
The parade of the war vessels & transports, the waving of flags, the bands playing, the Surf boats making the shore, was one of the grandest sights I ever witnessed. It was just twilight when our Surf boat scraped the sand, and as Capt. Moore (who had been unwell) was about to jump into the water, the Pet told him to straddle his neck and we landed him high and dry, without getting his feet wet. Our regiment formed a good line a few yards from the water's edge, stacked arms, and lay down for a night's rest. There was no passing through the lines. It was the stillest, most beautiful starlight night I ever beheld. Before midnight the moon, like a ball of fire seemed to come up out of the water, and in a few minutes there was an alarm. Every man sprang to his feet, and at the order "take arms," there was but one clash. It was the first and best piece of manual work the Regiment ever did, and I believe the last. Everything was soon quiet, and we stacked arms again and lay down, as before to sleep.
This combined army-navy amphibious assault on the city of Vera Cruz, involving the landing of some 10,000 men en masse on Collado Beach without serious mishap, was unprecedented in the annals of military history. The U.S. Army was not to attempt such a feat again until D-Day (June 6, 1944), nearly one-hundred years later.
Following the landing, Scott's forces set up a ring of batteries around Vera Cruz while from the sea, the U.S. Navy bombarded the city and the island fortress of San Juan d' Ulloa, located on a rocky crag in the harbor. Stephen Nunnalee recalled the siege of Vera Cruz with remarkable clarity, evidence that it must have been the most memorable episode of the regiment's term of service in Mexico.
Around noon on March 10th, Nunnalee recalled, General Quitman, under whose command the First Alabama was brigaded at Vera Cruz, stopped by their camp where he "dined with our officer, on hard tack and slice of bacon." That evening, said the former soldier, the regiment "moved to the west, and camped in an old opening, surrounded with dense undergrowth." Expecting the Mexicans to attack, everyone found it hard to sleep, but, "everything remained quiet."
The following day, said Nunnalee, "we took up the line of march, behind the sandhills, investing the city." At mid-day, the Alabamians waded across a shallow lagoon. Immediately behind them was "a finely uniformed Massachusetts company, commanded by a handsome lieutenant." Nunnalee no doubt took great delight in relating what occurred next:
...when he [the lieutenant] reached the water's edge he exclaimed, "Hell! I can't take that." A burly Irishman sung out, "Hould on, Liftenant I'll bear yez on me back." "If you will Pat, I will ride you." He straddled Pat's neck, who started forward, cautiously feeling his way over the poles, till he reached the deepest part when he stumbled and fell sprawling - on purpose. He jumped up and grabbed the lieutenant, who was floundering to gain his feet, offering the most sorrowful apologies one ever heard. But as they came out, he told the "Liftenant" to take heart; he was not much damaged, - and that he himself would take his clothes to the laundry-man early in the morning, with a few damns, he told him to go to hell.
After crossing a railroad track or a "macadamized road" (Nunnalee could not remember which), the soldiers marched up a steep sand-hill where they found General Pillow and another officer describing a recent skirmish near there. With "the musket balls occasionally whizzing over our heads," wrote Nunnalee, "we got a full view of the city, forts, and castle, one and a half to two miles to our front (North)."
While standing on the crest of the hill, the soldiers watched several cannon shots fall short of their position - except one:
This we saw coming straight for us, falling some 30 feet in front of our company, throwing the dust all over us, we opened our files and give it a free right of way. It rolled down the sand bank 30 or 40 feet. One of us went down and brought it up for inspection. It was about a 24 pound ball. Gen. Quitman was standing near, and remarked, "You boys can stand cannon balls very well." We felt complimented, just at this time, a "Smart Alec," having it in hand, threw [the cannon ball] down the hill as far as he could, with an epithet. Gen. Quitman told him to go down and bring it up again; and the boys gave a shout of approbation.
Afterwards, said Nunnalee, the regiment spotted, on a nearby hill, "a Mexican cavalryman in the open - squaring himself in his saddle." When Nunnalee voiced concern that the Mexican was about to take a shot at them, General Quitman expressed his belief they were out of range. But, said the former soldier: "Just then we heard the ball whizzing over our heads." Then, as the astonished Alabamians watched the Mexican remove his sombrero and wave it over his head, "a rifle cracked, and we saw him fall from his horse." Afterwards, Nunnalee thought he must have been an officer, "for that night there was great weeping and wailing in the city."
Marching a mile further to the west, the Alabama volunteers stopped and pitched their tents, in what Nunnalee described as "a pass, or opening, through the sand hills to the gulf and city." Nearby, just to the west, was the camp of the Georgia volunteers. Altogether, said Nunnalee, "our line from east to west covered about nine miles from shore to shore - the city being on the point of a promontory."
During the siege, the Alabamians were detailed for two or three days to "work in the trenches, fill sand bags, and construct forts." Some of the men were put to work bringing provisions from the shore, where they were landed by the Navy. Those trips down to the beach, said Nunnalee, were "often...made in the evening, so as to include twilight and darkness, when it was difficult to tell one sand hill from another, and on returning, our men often missed the trail." Nunnalee also complained that "provisions were often scant and hard to get." In hopes of finding something to supplement their meager diet, some of the men spent their time hunting but "always returned empty-handed."
One day, so he claimed, Nunnalee became something of a hero when "a bunch of cattle got away from the Mexican butchers." Denied permission by Captain Moore to shoot one of the cattle, because "it was against orders," Nunnalee asked "if there were any orders against catching." When told there weren't, the young man literally took matters into his own hands:
I ran as fast as I could, and met the herd, of ten or more, half way down the slope on our side, and throwing up my hands, inquiring where they were going. They wheeled short, and I grabbed a good sized one by the tail, and threw him around, and we "had it, over and under in the deep sand until we reached the edge of the woods, where I made him fast by the tail to a sapling, when my brother came up with a strong cord and looped him around the horns. I fancied "tail hold" was good enough for me, and held on, until someone struck him back of the horns, and he was soon butchered, to the joy and amid the shouts of half the regiment. For a few days I was something of a hero, being known as the boy who caught the bull by the tail. He was divided out among the messes, field and company officers, and for the first time in many days, we had a mess of fresh beef.
The bombardment of Vera Cruz was also memorable to the young soldier:
The batteries being completed, the regular bombardment of the city opened in regular order, so many shots per minute from each battery. The fire began soon after the rocket was sent up, and continued without cessation, for I suppose, about 36 hours or more - for the firing embraced two nights, during which there were heart rending screams and lamentations in the city. We could hear the crash of the balls and shells through the buildings, - then the explosion - followed by screams of men and women (apparently the whole population), and hear the patter of their feet upon the pavements as they ran from one portion of the city to another, endeavoring to find some spot where the missles of death could not reach them. But these seemed to follow the wails and pattering of the feet of the multitude. It was a most pitiful scene.
After three weeks, the Mexican forces in Vera Cruz capitulated on March 29, surrendering to General Scott in the main plaza. The Alabama volunteers were not among the troops drawn up in formation to witness the event, but, said Nunnalee, they were later told by others that "many of the Mexican soldiers were frantic with grief - kissing their guns as they stepped up to stack them."
On March 30, the day following the American occupation of Vera Cruz, the Alabama regiment, along with the Georgia and South Carolina volunteers, were ordered to march southward, under command of General John A. Quitman, to capture the town of Alvarado. There, it was hoped, a large number of horses, badly needed by Scott's forces, could be acquired. Leaving camp in the morning, the Alabamians were assembled, in readiness for the march, just outside the walls of Vera Cruz. There, Nunnalee saw, probably for the first time, why the artillery bombardment had been necessary to force the Mexicans to surrender. The walls of the city, he noted, "were surrounded by pits with iron spikes in the center."
That afternoon, at 3 o'clock, the soldiers set out on the sixty-mile march to Alvarado. It was long and tedious. Recalled Nunnalee:
I believe this was one of the hardest marches of the war, for it was along the water's edge (except about 3 miles), the whole way. The blazing heat, the deep sand, the reflection from the water, and the scarcity of drinking water, made it almost unbearable.
The first night out, the troops camped at the mouth of the Madelin river, which Nunnalee recalled as "a little stream 8 or 9 miles from the city." General Quitman, in his official report to General Scott, told how the men were able to cross it the next day:
In crossing the Madelin river, on the morning of the 31st, I was greatly indebted to the assistance of the navy, in preparing a bridge of boats, under the energetic direction of Lieutenant Whitwell, first lieutenant of the Ohio ship of the line.
After crossing, Quitman recalled, "the march...lay partly along the beach, through deep sand, and partly over a plain country." Private Nunnalee also recalled that day:
Next morning we resumed our march, striking across a prairie of some extent, with the..."Green Pond" near the centre. The water was not brackish, except from the droppings of cattle, it being seemingly their watering place. We charged into it, capturing two small alligators; Proceeding, we camped on the coast, sinking wells in the sand for our next day's water supply, getting some from a pond further west one or two miles.
Nunnalee also recalled that at midnight: "We detailed a water squad to slip quietly to our wells...to fill our canteens." But, said the former soldier, the men assigned to this task found that in the dead of night "the rattle of canteens was equal to a cavalry charge." Nevertheless, they achieved their business successfully. The water, said Nunnalee, "was brackish, but far better than none."
The next morning, the 1st of April, the men resumed their march - again along the water's edge. As the day wore on, some of men, suffering from sore and swollen feet, the result of wading through the water, "had to be put in wagons." At about 2 o'clock that afternoon, they came upon "a jutting sand cliff, with cold water dripping." Said Nunnalee: "It was affecting to see men stand in the water with heads thrown back, their mouths open, tongues out, catching a few drops of water as it fell into the surf."
Before Quitman's soldiers were able to reach Alvarado, a U.S. Navy steamer, exceeding orders, had taken the town and a small fort which guarded it. In his official report, General Quitman wrote:
I reached the town of Alvarado, with the cavalry, on the evening of the 1st..., about half an hour after Commodore Perry had landed there. In the mean time, when about fifteen miles from the town, I had received a note from Midshipman Temple, of the steamer Scourge, informing me the town had surrendered, and requesting the commander of the land forces to hold it....Immediately upon my arrival, Commodore Perry expressed to me his disapproval of the act of Mr. Hunter, the commander of the Scourge, in landing; and has, I learn, signified it more publicly by the arrest of that officer.
Unfortunately, one result of Hunter's rash act was that prior to the arrival of Quitman's troops, the Mexicans had time to run most of their horses off into the interior, in order to keep them out of the hands of the Americans.
Stephen Nunnalee recalled that the Alabamians reached Alvarado "in the dusk of the evening." Only recently abandoned, smoke from the Mexican camp fires was still visible. The young soldier thought the town was beautiful, with "a beautiful river front, flowing through mountain gorges above." He remembered their short stay there:
We remained there two nights, demolishing some forts, and of course more chicken roosts suffered. I saw a drunken sailor charge several times through a cactus hedge. In trying to arrest him, he made for the river and that only stopped him. If a man gets drunk on Muscal, it is said, he is drunk for a month. We saw some very pretty women in the barred windows and the verandahs. The old Alcalde was a polite old white head. Saw no soldiers.
Although Nunnalee said the soldiers stayed only two nights, General Quitman's report states that they did not set out to return to Vera Cruz until the morning of April 4th. Fortunately, despite Lieutenant Hunter's overenthusiasm, the expedition had not been in vain. Quitman noted that after the nearby town of Tlacatalpa also surrendered, he and Commodore Perry had been able to negotiate with some of its inhabitants for the sale of some 500 horses "to the quartermaster's department, at low prices."
Neither Private Nunnalee or General Quitman recalled the return to Vera Cruz
except to note that it was another long, hard march. Nearing the city they'd left several days earlier, the Alabamians began asking their colonel, as he rode along beside them, where they were going to camp upon arrival. "Sticking his heels into his mustang," recalled Nunnalee, "he replied, `Dinged if I know!'" The night they reached Vera Cruz the men simply "lay down outside the city gate, to wait for the morning, to get a nap, and let the Regiment catch up." All through the next day stragglers came into camp.
The next morning, as the Alabamians marched through the city, they saw "the piles of debris in the streets and holes torn through the walls" sights which made them think "of the terrible agony of the people during the bombardment."
After making camp outside the city walls, Nunnalee recalled, some of the men "got permits to go into the city and to visit the castle." There, what he saw impressed him:
Vera Cruz is a much larger city than we thought, compactly built, with good streets. Families live up stairs and in the rear of stores. I can't remember seeing many shanties. The castle is impregnable, being built of coral, on a reef, the walls being impervious to ball and bomb. The castle proper covers several acres, and there are several hundred cannons, large and small, and some immense iron mortars. It is situated about 1,000 yards from the city wharfage - the channel between being 60 or 70 feet deep. The dungeons are hideous, with massive doors. I am unable to give a minute description of either castle or city, but it is certainly strongly fortified, but it would be much stronger if it had outer defensive works. The wall around the city being of brick, if I mistake not, if attacked from the rear, could soon be demolished with cannons.
On April 17, the American Eagle, a U.S. newspaper printed in Vera Cruz, reported:
One company of the South Carolina regiment, accompanied by the Georgia and Alabama regiments, left here yesterday afternoon, post-haste for the interior. They have been kept in a state of readiness for some days past; yet the order to march was received with considerable surprise by many of those belonging to these corps.
Stephen Nunnalee also recalled the departure from Vera Cruz and the march inland:
In a few days orders came for us to take up the line of march toward the city of Mexico via [the] Jalapa, - Puebla route. Our camping places were those of the army preceding us. About 16 miles out over a dirt road, we camped on a creek, and remained there the next day, hearing the guns of the battle of Cerro Gordo. The road from there to Jalapa is a double pike, well built, over a rolling country, with deep gorges on either side. We camped the 2nd night near the National Bridge over the Rio Frio, a structure of great strength and good workmanship. It has 16 or 18 stone arches. The road approaching the Bridge from the south, winds around the base of an almost perpendicular peak, several hundred feet high, with a small fort and a gun on top, which could only be effective at a distance, for the gun could not be depressed at short range.
Because they came up several days after the main body of Scott's forces, the Alabamians did not participate in the Battle of Cerro Gordo, which resulted in an American victory on April 18, 1847. They did, however, view the effects of its aftermath, recalled in detail by Stephen Nunnalee:
On the north west bank [near the National Bridge] Santa Anna had a beautiful, well-furnished hacienda, and it was sad to view the smashed furniture and magnificent mirrors. Many papers and documents were scattered over the floors. I picked [up] a beautifully written letter...signed by Gizott, the French Minister, which I kept for a long time as a souvenir. This bridge is only a few miles from the Cerro Gordo gorge, the famous battle ground. It is practically impregnable, - a circular perpendicular wall on the left, and a high rocky cliff on the right, at the head stands the Sugar Loaf, where I counted heaps of dead Mexicans, killed by our troops who attacked from the rear. I suppose the gorge is something like a mile long, where the dry strain turns to the right, [going up] where our men scaled the steep ascent to the rear of the Sugar Loaf.
Along the way, Nunnalee reported, he and some companions viewed the wounded General Shield, saw the captured Mexican General La Vega, and straying from the column, came upon some wounded, but armed, Mexican soldiers being tended by women. Their guns being unloaded, the young Alabamians "jabbered friendly excuses and let off with a few snarling frowns." Afterwards, realizing "we had made a mistake," Nunnalee and his friends "loitered not until we joined our regiment as it emerged at the head of a gorge." There, they "found a poor Mexican soldier chained to a cannon that was pointing down the pass." But although they "felt pity for him," the Americans "left him there."
Marching on deeper into the Mexican interior, the Alabamians, along with the rest of General Scott's forces, eventually reached Jalapa, capital of the state of Vera Cruz. Located in a natural amphitheater of mountains, Jalapa afforded the Americans a magnificent view of the snow-clad peak of Orizaba, which, although over thirty miles away, seemed much closer in its majesty. On a clear day it was also possible to see all the way to the Gulf of Mexico - some forty miles distant. But unlike the coastal lowlands, the climate of Jalapa was much more pleasant and equitable than the coastal regions they had just left. Stephen Nunnalee, recalling the arrival of the Alabama volunteers, wrote that they "entered the beautiful little city of Jalapa, in the evening, and pitched our camp near a Scotch Cotton factory on the west side of town."
Jalapa's beauty notwithstanding, by this time many of the twelve-months volunteers had "seen the elephant" (meaning they'd experienced the war), and, as Stephen Nunnalee recalled, "began to think of home." Their terms of enlistment due to expire in only a few weeks, all were asked by General Scott to extend for the duration of the war but declined, offering the General a compromise: Three months or until Mexico City was taken. Whether he gave the compromise any consideration is unknown but in the end, with his army poised on the threshold of Mexico City, Scott decided to let the volunteers go. To move further inland, he reasoned, keeping tired, unwilling men in service to the very last day of their terms, would have served no useful purpose.
Years later Stephen Nunnalee recalled Jalapa and the scenery surrounding the town, which left an indelible impression on his mind:
...I use the term "Beautiful Jalapa," and I feel that it is fully entitled to it because of its location and surroundings. It is situated on the western terminus of a long stretch of table land reaching from Cerro Gordo to the base of the Orizaba, rolling and interspersed with undulating ridges, with mount views and glimpses of the Gulf of Mexico to the north and northwest, with the ever present Orizaba in front to the southwest; affording every degree of temperature one [could] wish, within a few miles. Just north of the main street is a high sugar peak, affording an extensive view in every direction, with the blue hills and mountains south and southwest beyond the Orizaba towards Puebla, and the gulf with ships and sail vessels dotting its surface. Cordova, the famous coffee region, lies to the southeast, while oranges, pineapples, and other tropical fruits and flowers are cultivated in the gardens, and brought in on the backs of the peons and beasts of burden for miles around. There are some beautiful residences, a splendid church, and pretty women. I was on the Loaf, above spoken of, and saw a heavy cloud, with vivid lightning, but on top the sun was shining brightly, when I descend[ed] to camp I was astonished to find that a heavy rain had fallen, and the ruts and little rivulets were flooded with rushing water. I have often thought, that with protection to life and property, Jalapa would be an ideal dwelling place.
In Jalapa's church, on a Sunday morning, Nunnalee was impressed by the devotion displayed by a penitent worshiper who knelt before "an image of some sort" with "eyes glaring, hands and arms extended, stripped to the waist, and the perspiration oozing from every pore." He also visited the town's cotton factory, the owner of which was "an intelligent old Scotchman who had been there 40 years...and had made lots of money." Complaining that Santa Anna had taken some of his money, the Scotsman confided in Nunnalee that his foreman, a Georgian named Hall, had committed "some offense against the authorities, either church or state," and that "his wife, Mrs. Hall, hid him in a well, until she could find means to pacify his accusers, or get him out of the country."
On May 3, 1847 General Scott issued orders for Colonel Henry Wilson, commanding at Vera Cruz, to have transports ready for 3,000 men. The following day Scott issued orders for the departure not only of the Alabama volunteers but also troops from Georgia, Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky. On May 6th they began their march back down to Vera Cruz. Stephen Nunnalee remembered:
In a few days we began to pack up to leave for home. I do not remember that any of our boys joined the army. They sent down a wagon load of Mexican soldier uniforms for us to "rig" ourselves out in, if we chose. I picked out a coat that would button in front but the front button struck me just below my nipples, and the "swallow tail" struck me just below my back suspender buttons. I declined to play "The camp Fool" in that garb, but proposed to auction off the whole lot, free gratis for Uncle Sam. I did not get a bid.
Nunnalee recalled that the march back down to Vera Cruz, began at 2 o'clock a.m. and that the men "made all the noise we could." But he may have exaggerated when he wrote that he "actually saw some men walking along fast asleep." However, his statement that "there was little straggling," is certainly believable.
The march back to Vera Cruz, according to Nunnalee, took only two or three days. There, the Alabama regiment, then numbering about 550 men (out of an original 900), boarded the Virginia, the same steamship on which they'd traveled to Tampico from Texas. "She was a slow coach, even with sail and steampower," recalled Nunnalee, "But we were moving towards home." Unfortunately, the craft lost time when it became becalmed for a day. Then, said Nunnalee, upon entering the mouth of the Mississippi, "a fearful rain and wind storm struck us, and we had to put to sea." But finally, they reached New Orleans where, upon landing, the men "took a bath, shaved, cut off our manes and tails, decked ourselves out in new suits, threw our lousy clothes away, and took to the street." There, said Nunnalee, their appearance having been so dramatically altered, the men had "to be introduced to each other when we met." On May 27, 1847, they were officially mustered out of federal service and received their discharge certificates.
Although the soldiers also drew their regular "pay rations" upon reaching New Orleans, this sum was so small (a Mexican War private's pay was $8 a month) that they had only a little money to take home or spend on the myriad delights of the "Crescent City." As a result, many veterans were talked into selling the rights to their bounty land warrants, a government reward for their service, by unscrupulous speculators who had come to New Orleans to prey on them. These warrants, good for 160 acres of land, were often disposed of for as little as $50, an amount considerably less than their true worth.
Sadly, documents on file in the National Archives show that Alfred Butler was among those unfortunates who were "fleeced." Young and uneducated, he must surely have been a prime target. On May 28, 1847, only one day following his discharge, the young ex-soldier made his mark on an application for the land warrant to which he was entitled, requesting the Commissioner of Pensions in Washington, D.C. to "forward the necessary Warrant...to me care [of] Wm. Christy." Christy, a New Orleans notary, appears to have been working in tandem with another man, Auguste Commandem, because another document, missing from Butler's land bounty file, purportedly granted power of attorney to Commandem.
That fall, after the application was received in Washington, along with his original discharge certificate as proof of service, a bounty land warrant was issued in young Butler's name and, as requested, mailed to William Christy in New Orleans. Later, Auguste Commandem, acting as the veteran's "attorney in fact," endorsed the warrant over to a third party named Richard Catlin. It can only be assumed that in exchange for the warrant, Commandem received some payment from Catlin, just as Alfred Butler must have received some compensation from Christy or Commandem - although nothing in the file confirms it. Alfred Butler, according to his own testimony, never received or even saw the warrant.
Finally, in 1849, perhaps with the purported power of attorney attached to the endorsed warrant (which is also not among the papers in Butler's file), Richard Catlin (brother of noted frontier artist George Catlin) redeemed it for 160 acres of land at Green Bay, Wisconsin.
It appears, based on Stephen Nunnalee's reminiscences, that the newly discharged Alabama volunteers could not have spent more than a day or two in New Orleans before taking passage back to Alabama - although Alfred Butler later stated he actually remained in service for fourteen days past the date of his discharge. Regardless, it's not hard to imagine that the young men took advantage of the time they had there to see the sights and enjoy the hospitality for which New Orleans has always been famous. Perhaps while visiting the Vieux Carré, or old French Quarter, they might have stopped, while walking through the Place D'Armes (later re-named Jackson Square), to admire the simple beauty of St. Louis Cathedral. Flanked on either side by the Cabildo and the Presbyteré, the venerable old church had stood since 1724. Or perhaps they visited the stately St. Charles Hotel, one of the city's outstanding landmarks. According to author Leonard Huber, in his book New Orleans: A Pictorial History, the St. Charles was "the most admired building in the New Orleans of the 1840's." Built in 1842, it was named for the street on which it stood. It boasted 350 rooms, a "huge ballroom adorned with a range of Ionic columns" and "a stately ballroom above it." The focal point for both business and social life in the city's American quarter, the St. Charles' most outstanding feature was its lofty dome, from which visitors and guests were afforded an excellent perspective of the city and its river.
The young men might also have enjoyed the Jardin du Rocher de St. Helene, a popular park, or perhaps they headed for an area called the "Swamp," a rough part of town where bordellos and barrel houses flourished along either side of Girod Street. Gallatin Street, between the French Market and the Mint, was another spot where prostitutes abounded in dance halls and saloons.
During the final days of May 1847, the "Eutaw Rangers" boarded a boat bound for Mobile, where, upon arrival, they "spent a day in the city, and took the first boat for Tuskaloosa." When it grounded just above Demapolis, the intrepid ex-soldiers disembarked and marched to Forkland. There, Nunnalee recalled, "Many of us took supper with Messrs. Williamson Glover, J. I. Thornton, Geo. Perrine and others." Afterwards, he said, he and his friends mounted "mules, horses, etc....and reached for Eutaw about 11 o'clock, just twelve months from the day we left for the army in Mexico; June 2nd, 1846." There, they were welcomed by a large crowd of Greene County citizens who had turned out to greet the returning volunteers. Wrote Nunnalee:
Congratulatory speeches were made, hearty shaking followed. This was the prelude to a public reception and dinner which followed in a few days after our return. We were glad, & friends were not ashamed of our record as men and soldiers.
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